Australia’s carbon emissions plummeting to lowest levels in 30 years

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Pandemic put a handbrake on transport emissions and slowed economic activity, while uptake in renewables also helped drive down levels.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped last year to levels not seen in more than 30 years due mostly to the coronavirus pandemic that put a handbrake on fossil fuel burning in the transport sector and slowed economic activity.
New government data released Monday shows sectors where emissions fell sharply in 2020 due to factors beyond the government’s control – the global pandemic and the end of a sharp drought – were starting to rebound.

In the final quarter of 2020, transport emissions – which includes road and rail movement as well as domestic air travel – rose by 11% in the previous three months, reflecting the easing of lockdown restrictions and increases in domestic air travel.

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Increasing levels of solar and wind energy were continuing to push out coal in the electricity sector that accounts for a third of the country’s emissions.

Emissions in this sector have dropped 21% since 2009. A milder December meant people had used less power for cooling than usual, helping cut emissions further.

But the energy department data says long-term trends for other high-emitting sectors are heading in the wrong direction.

Since 1990, the department data shows the annual energy used mainly to produce goods in heavy industry has risen 52% and transport emissions have gone up 43%.

The department said there was also likely to be a growth in emissions from agriculture in coming quarters as sheep and cattle stocks increased following an easing of drought conditions and crop production went up.

Fugitive emissions from gases escaping into the atmosphere along the production and supply chain of oil, coal and gas fell 9% in 2020 from the previous year but were also rising long term as a result of the LNG industry, the government said.

Energy analyst Hugh Saddler, honorary associate professor at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, said: “The only thing the government can take credit for here is not completely blocking the transition in the electricity sector.”

But he warned for the transition from coal to renewables to continue to deliver gains, much more would need to be done to allow the electricity network to accommodate more renewables.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic had caused the fall in transport emissions, which the government’s report says is now rising again.

Australia’s globally significant LNG export industry was increasing the emissions in the stationary energy sector. Burning gas to provide the energy needed to compress it into LNG for export was “putting a big kick up on Australia’s stationary energy emissions”, said Saddler.

In a statement, the energy minister, Angus Taylor, said despite the “upward pressure from growth in exports and industry”, emissions per capita and the emissions intensity of the economy were “at their lowest levels in three decades”.

Since 1990, Australia’s rate of land clearing has fallen rapidly and, while still high, is responsible for the biggest fall in the country’s annual greenhouse gas accounts.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said Taylor’s “crowing about emissions reductions” relied on “a renewables transition he’s trying to slow, a Covid-related transport shift that he cannot prolong and a coal production drop that he’s trying to reverse”.

Bandt said while coal emissions were falling, “gas is pushing up climate pollution” and the government’s “hostility to electric vehicles” meant transport pollution would keep growing.
He said: “The lack of an EV plan is costing us. Transport pollution is going back up and will continue to do so while the Liberals keep waging war on EVs.

“We need 75% reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2035, but today’s data shows we’re nowhere near that.”
Taylor said the government would “meet and beat our 2030 Paris target” to cut emissions by 26-28% compared with 2005 levels.

The Monday data, he said, showed Australia was now 20% below 2005 levels. Australia’s 2030 target has remained the same since 2015.